Global Internet is breaking apart: Should Africa build its own?
The Internet was supposed to enable globalisation. It has tried and in the process enabled US tech companies to have a global presence. China on the other hand built its own version of the internet which is partly the reason why there are global tech giants from China.
Currently, the US is threatened by Chinese technology innovations. To catch up, the US is banning Chinese technologies. As a result of a technology cold war between the US and China, we are likely to see the emergence of a splinternet or the balkanization of the internet along national boundaries. If the current scenario continues, we are likely to see a lesser globalised internet.
The Russians have been preparing for the splinternet. Last year, Russia shut down the global internet to test the RuNet programme and assess its ability to exist without the need to use the global internet. If the splinternet were to become a reality China and Russia would still be able to carry on with little interruption. Other parts of the world would need to figure out a way of working with nations that have a stronger internet infrastructure. It would be a choice between the US, China, or Russia. All of these nations have value systems that can be embraced and some that should not.
The bigger question for Africa is the following: what will Africa do in the case of the splinternet.
Africa will have no choice but to rely on the internet built for other nations or be internet-less.
The likelihood of using other nation's internet would mean Africa would forever be dominated by products built elsewhere for other nations. Take WhatsApp, Telegram, and WeChat as examples. Although beneficial, whenever Africans use these products they are either using an American, Russian, or Chinese product respectively. Whatever these nations decide about these products Africa will need to agree. Africa has no way of making rules based on its values, it just uses these products and agrees to everything decided upon by other nations. To understand the meaning of this scenario you have to look at what is happening to TikTok. The US feels that a Chinese product (Tik Tok) is violating its principles and potentially accessing its secrets and therefore poses national security.
In response, the US plans to ban the Chinese product and in the process, the US in the form of Facebook manages to get its own business (Instagram) to clone (copy) the other Chinese product (TikTok) while it’s forcing TikTok (Chinese) to sell its company to an American company.
Whether you agree or disagree with the US and its approach the reality is that the US can take a stand on the matter and still not suffer the consequences of closing down Tik Tok because they have alternative products. The same cannot be said about Africa.
The African continent may disagree with how Facebook is abusing its dominance and it can do nothing (although it should) about such violations.
A splintered internet is not desirable however it may be the only way going forward. When such a scenario arises Africa will have to be ready to stand on its own two feet to still have the technology engine of modern society. To get to that point may sound impossible for Africa however it’s possible. In 1999, the Chinese tech giant Alibaba was just a few months old.
The state of the Chinese internet economy was in its infancy. Today, China has global tech giants that include Alibaba that commands global respect. China can exist without the US in tech terms and still survive. Africa can build its tech giants. In the short run, it may mean reliance on others to have internet independence in the long term. The days of the global internet are coming to an end. Africa needs to build now or become an internet colony.
*Wesley Diphoko is the Editor-In-Chief of the Fast Company (SA) magazine.